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Remembering The Future Of Radical Activism


There are two important radical political activists that have shaped my way of thinking in a far-reaching and profound manner. Although their political points of departure differ in fundamental ways, their political views are characterised by a non-compromising attitude towards social change. I find this trait both inspiring and admirable. I am talking about Malcolm X and Michael Albert. In this essay, however, I discuss only the latter.  

To be more specific, it is his latest book ‘Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to life after capitalism‘ that I look at in this essay. The book is a memoir and is published by Seven Stories Press.

 

There are six chapters in this book that I find important and that I think can be of use to serious activists. These are: Campus Organizing, Big Man on Campus, Heating up and Melting Down, Bean Town, Washington Bullets, and Bread and Roses.

 

Campus Organizing and the Big Man on Campus

 

It is 1967. Albert is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is just getting started with serious left activism. One of the concerns that the MIT students were organizing around at the time was that of corporations such as Dow Chemical Company (DCC) coming to campus to recruit students to their firms. Albert explains that Dow manufactured napalm, a chemical mixture dropped from planes that burned skin even when doused with water. Albert adds that napalm was a heinous weapon, and was widely used by the U.S. against the Vietnamese. 

 

By physically disrupting the recruitment process, the students won the campaign against DCC. Albert points out that disrupting the DCC process was a means to an end, not an end in itself, with the end being to raise consciousness and sowing the seeds for future involvement by more people. Simply put, the ultimate goal was movement building.

 

To build a movement strong enough to win new social institutions, activists had to address many misconceptions that people had regarding human nature and how those misconceptions prevented people from participating in social activism. For example, some people still believe that the reason there are wars in this world is because of human nature; that if the U.S. does not fight wars or occupy countries such as Iraq, someone else will. Albert adds that another belief that prevents people from opposing oppression is the view that there is no alternative to the present system, that the state and corporations are too powerful and that basically to win social change is impossible.

 

So, as a tactic to build a strong, student-based movement Albert decided to participate in MIT campus elections for undergraduate association president. Although most people view campus elections as a silly diversion from real dissent, Albert explains that what informed his decision to participate in the elections was the prospect of using the process to speak and organize. Winning the elections gave Albert and the Social Democratic Movement (a movement that Albert was part of at the time) furnished offices, equipment and a budget to boot. Albert writes that they used these resources to resist, dissent and to build the movement.

 

Winning the elections also brought Albert a celebrity status. He argues that there was pressure to agree with the surrounding chorus that he was special and deserved elite perks. After reflecting on this issue Albert came to the conclusion that instead of using the situation for personal gain, he had to utilize the situation to the benefit of the movement. Albert based this decision on his belief that he was perceived as a special figure on campus due to luck and circumstance, and not because of any moral superiority.

 

Heating Up and Melting Down

 

Many of the most militant struggles at MIT involved confronting war research, writes Albert. Activism around the issue of war research led to the formation of the November Action Coalition (NAC). The NAC was a coalition of campus movements and groups from all over the Boston area whose main aim was to oppose the MIT’s war research. In response MIT obtained a restraining order to prevent the people who were at the forefront of the NAC from entering the MIT premises.

 

“Our reaction was to mount the main steps of MIT, face Massachusetts Avenue, give fiery speeches, and rip up the restraining order (p. 102).” The MIT ignored the violation of the restraining order. Albert explains that the MIT ignored it because the MIT administration feared that arresting them would have dramatically raised the support of the NAC events. What the MIT administration understood perfectly well is that in industrialized countries, repression can only be beaten by creating a context in which elite repression would provoke more response than it would deter, writes Albert.

 

The day of the NAC main event came; and the plan was to march to MIT labs to obstruct them. However, the police got to the labs before them; consequently, a physical conflict ensued between the police and the NAC. Albert explains that the physical conflict was a sideshow, for at the end of the day, it was never the size of the clouds of tear gas or lumps, bruises or broken bones that provided the measure of a struggle. What mattered was what followed; meaning the lasting effect on how many activists remained in the movement, the depth of their commitment and the organizational wherewithal.

 

As a result, the student movements of the 60s were able to transform the mood and sometimes the rules of higher education, writes Albert. He adds that the movements opened the minds of millions of people, turned topsy-turvy the norms of society and the ripples still spread today.  

 

Bean Town and Washington Bullets

 

In these two chapters, Albert reflects on some of the lessons he learnt from being involved with the Boston People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) and the Anti-War Movement. He writes that the young clashed with old activists, for young activists rejected old-style Leninist organizational hierarchy and sectarianism, timid movement legalism and primness. Instead, young activists asserted self-management, popular participation, militancy, and daily-life innovation.

 

Albert points out, however, that young activists often made big mistakes by taking their insight too far. He adds that young activists often disparaged many people for ignorant reasons, and that young activists celebrated themselves too much, often mistaking bravado for serious achievement.

 

Another contentious issue was reaching a consensus on how to organize and build the Boston PCPJ. Some people within the PCPJ argued for big demonstrations in Washington D.C., while others argued for local demonstrations. Albert explains that the problem was that people often acted as if opting for one or the other choice was a matter of principle. “They thought favoring one or the other option marked a moral divide. In fact, of course, the matter was contextual. We should have always asked what choice, given where we were at, would best propel us forward (p. 118).”    

 

It is unreasonable to think that tactics are anything other than a contextual matter, argues Albert. For example, he explains, it depends on the context whether to engage in civil disobedience, a riot or a militant and aggressive march. Albert adds that the principle that should guide activists is whether their choice of tactic is going to enlarge, deepen, broaden, and intensify movement opposition to injustice.  

 

Thus, the 60s activists understood that to be threatening to elites, movements had to grow, diversify and intensify, writes Albert.

 

“The logic of going to Washington first with a rally, then with a march and a rally, then with a rally and civil disobedience, and then with just plain old disruption, was to convey that the movement was getting bigger and stronger and, moreover, that its focus was broadening from just this war [Vietnam war] to all war, and from war to capitalism. Our escalation said to elites, if you keep on with Vietnam, you may encounter problems at home that are too big to endure (p. 133).”

 

So, for May Day 1971, the movement brought to Washington D.C. demonstrators who were committed to civil disobedience, the goal being to shut down the city. The slogan was ‘If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’re going to stop the government’. Albert argues that the problem with this slogan is that it compelled many people to judge organizing methods and actions by only short-term results whereas the movement had long-term desires. The upshot of all this was that people went to Washington D.C., closed down the city for one day, but the next day it was back to business as usual for the government. Albert adds that many people gave up activism afterwards, mainly because they felt that they were wasting their efforts. People felt like failures when their efforts neither stopped the Vietnam War nor the government.

 

Bread and Roses

 

Bread and Roses was one of the first new left-style feminist women’s organizations to be established in the 60s. The organization addressed reproductive rights, child care, equal employment, gender discrimination and violence against women. Albert adds that Bread and Roses women were militant and angry, and often saw instances of sexism where others tended to see only commonplace circumstances. As a result, most leftist men dismissed them as ‘hysterical’, ‘knee-jerk’, ‘frigid’ and ‘maniacal’. It is because women did not want to constantly deal with these sexist attitudes that Bread and Roses was established as a space solely for women.   

 

Albert explains that Bread and Roses wanted feminists playing leading roles around matters of race, class, movement building, foreign policy and ecological preservation. “At the time, movement men realised that we obviously had no right telling women what they should be doing about sexism, but we did have a responsibility to address other men and male-dominated institutions (p. 145).”

 

Albert explains that this meant instead of always choosing men who by appearance were more confident, better trained and more knowledgeable for leadership roles, women had to be considered for leadership roles too. Movement building informed by this logic has a potential to subvert the traditional sexist tendencies of movements to elevate a few highly educated and self-confident men to leadership roles, argues Albert.

 

Conclusion

 

According to Albert, one of the most self-defeating habits of the leftist movements is the lack of strategy. He explains that activists in movements tend to choose patterns of action, organisation and personal lifestyles that have failed before and that would lead to ill effects tomorrow if they happened to succeed, merely because they are familiar or feel good today. Albert adds that activists rarely learn from gains and setbacks. He argues that activists lack a collectively agreed upon vision for economic production and for a whole new society.

 

Albert urges activists to move away from an apocalyptic and reactive way of organizing. “The government meets; we disrupt. They bomb; we rally. They propose a law; we seek to overturn it. They arrest; we protest. They act; we respond. They act. We react (p. 397).” As far as Albert is concerned, it this kind of mentality that keeps movements from winning radical social changes. He proposes that we overcome this mind-set first if we are serious about bringing about a revolution.

 

Mandisi Majavu is a postgraduate psychology student at the University of Cape Town. He can be reached at

[email protected]This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

 

 

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